Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Rating: 5 stars

I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:

“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.

Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.

Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.

Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet,  living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.

Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

elizabeth is missingI reckon that many fiction publishers have latched onto the fact that there are a lot of very keen readers for novels which switch between different times and different narrators. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, it’s actually the same narrator – Maud – but in a voice much altered by the passage of time, so that the effect is almost of two distinctly different people.

Or so it seems at first. The more you read, the more you see the similarities between the younger and older person. Maud as the older narrator is suffering from dementia and her voice and obsessions have become simple and child-like. She can no longer remember what she’s done earlier in the day, but parts of the distant past have become crystal clear to her. Maud is now obsessed with trying to find her friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing through some ill treatment. Maud repeatedly goes over the same ground (literally), going back and forth to Elizabeth’s house and, apparently, to the police station to report her disappearance. Maud writes herself notes to try to aid her memory and to keep a record of the important facts she’s convinced she’s discovering.

Maud’s present-day journeys awaken memories of her sister Sukey and of her efforts to find her when she went missing many decades before. In her search for Elizabeth, Maud discovers the truth, or at least a part of the truth, about Sukey’s disappearance. The younger Maud had become ill and was protected by her parents, and now that she is old it is her daughter and granddaughter, Helen and Katy, who are trying to protect her. Time and time again we see struggles within families with different generations attempting to look after parents living in difficult situations or fighting mental instability or infirmity. Young Maud’s family had a lodger, Douglas, whose home had been bombed out and who was secretly trying to protect and look after his elderly “mad” mother, while also repeatedly hunting for Sukey.

All the characters in Elizabeth is Missing are coping with the loss of a loved one and/or the loss of possessions and a home. Sukey’s husband (and possible nemesis) Frank, goes from being surrounded by an abundance of possessions – so many that it’s hard to move around his house – to having nothing and being reduced to living on the outside of society. Maud, too, both as a child and as an old woman hoards possessions, whether these be oddments which she regards as clues found while walking and looking for her sister or for Elizabeth, or tins of peaches. Like Frank, like the bombed-out Douglas and like Elizabeth, she is finally inevitably reduced to having to have very few possessions.

Emma Healey deals with these ideas with clarity and sympathy, without ever losing sight of her current-day or older characters or plots. To anyone with older relatives or with close friends or family members with mental health problems, this can be a difficult book to read, being at times painfully honest about the problems faced in a relationship where communication has often broken down to the extent that one side no longer recognises the identity of the other. This is the well-deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award for 2014, and I look forward to reading more from this terrific new talent.

Rating: 5 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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